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All Big Ideas in Tech

BIT – Week 1 – Bios of Influential Figures

Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush was one of the most important scientists/engineers/administrators/inventors people of the 20th century. He firmly believed military strength was critical for preserving democracy. A professor at MIT in 1931, he built the first analog computer for solving incredibly complex differential equations. The U.S. Navy hired him to build more war technologies as WW2 was beginning.

World War II was Bush’s prime. He approached President Franklin Roosevelt with a single-page plan for building an organization of science & technology research for the military, which Roosevelt funded within 10 minutes, and eventually he led the new Office of Scientific Research & Development. By 1940, he was the most influential person in science, even though, as he wrote in a memoir, “I made no technical contribution to the war effort. Not a single technical idea of mine ever amounted to shucks.” He instead—daring at the time—contracted many of his researchers to universities & corporations, in total over 6,000 men (emphasis on “men”) & funded them with $3 million/week (now equivalent to half a billion dollars per week!). 2/3 of physicists in the U.S. worked for him. Their lab figured out the mass production of penicillin, among many other accomplishments. He appeared on the cover of Time in 1944. In 1945, he led in advising President Truman to use the atomic bomb against Japan, which he was involved in developing.

After the war, his power waned. His recommendations led to the creation of the National Science Foundation. He wrote several essays & books, including “As We May Think,” some of which are considered to still influence military-science policy today, filed hundreds of patents, won various awards, continued working at MIT, and advised various scientific efforts. Though a key figure in the buildup of the military-industrial complex, he later wrote it had gone too far. In 1970, he wrote, “We need a revival of the essence of the old pioneer spirit which conquered the forest and the plains…and left its thinking and its philosophy for later and quieter times. This is not a call for optimism; it is a call for determination.”


Douglas Engelbart

Douglas Engelbart is a key figure in the development of the internet and personal computers, best known for inventing the mouse in 1964. At age 25, in 1950, he had an epiphany, a “complete vision of the information age.” He saw himself “in front of a large computer screen full of different symbols.” After working with radar consoles in WW2, he envisioned computers becoming personal workstations with graphical interfaces people could understand.

In 1968, during the Vietnam War, as part of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), funded by NASA & the Defense Department, he put together an hour’s presentation to demonstrate his ideas. To paraphrase his NYT obituary: in front of a mouse and keyboard and a projected computer display, he showed a networked, interactive computing system for scientists to collaborate. He demonstrated the mouse for the first time, along with text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing. Even still, this demonstration is called “the mother of all demos.” Steve Jobs borrowed the idea two decades later for the Macintosh.

In 1960, he described the process that became Moore’s Law. Engelbart was one of the first to realize what increasingly-powerful computers could do for people—they could augment intellect—and his contributions have given lasting shape to all modern computers. In one talk, speaking about the future, he said, “Boy, are there going to be some surprises over there.”